Mmusi Maimane. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mmusi Maimane. Picture: SUPPLIED

Those who say they often find SA and its politics baffling have a point. The government’s attempt to get children back at school is just one such example.

Angie Motshekga, the basic education minister, rightly came under severe criticism when her department failed to ensure that some pupils could return to school as planned on June 1. And now she finds herself having to go to court to defend the right of children to go to school after a legal challenge by former DA leader Mmusi Maimane and his One SA Movement.

It’s been just over a week since the government took another step in opening up an economy that’s set to be devastated by the Covid-19 outbreak and the national lockdown that’s been in force since March 27. The move to alert level 3 was a major step and was, according to academics at Wits University, set to allow some 16-million people to return to work.

This was significantly more than earlier estimates and was due to the government having listened to business and the actual level 3 being more relaxed than envisaged in draft proposals.

Business Day has been among those arguing that the government could have done more and given some necessary relief to our battered tourism industries and other sectors.  It’s a travesty that they cannot operate while up to 50 people can congregate in a place of worship. 

Across the world, it is understood that returning children to school is key to getting the economy going by enabling parents to go back to work. Unless Maimane and his movement have some practical plans about how to enable parents to go back to earning and still have the required childcare, this is not an issue they should be playing politics with.

Nobody is arguing that government should be reckless. We were the loudest critics of its failure to ensure that all schools were ready with the necessary protocols. But those schools that can operate should be allowed to. 

The government says closing schools for the rest of the academic year and having it repeated in 2021 will cost at least R22bn. With an economy set to shrink by double digits and a budget deficit of 13% or more forecast by economists for 2020, this is not the kind of expense the country can afford. More so if it’s not necessary.

Keeping children out of school will bring possibly permanent developmental costs. It will deprive them of structure and support from teachers.  Some children come from households unable to provide structure, due to the many social ills that blight this country and parents needing to work.

Is there a better way to entrench the country’s inequalities than unnecessarily keeping children, especially those from poorer backgrounds, from formal education? Even among the relatively well off, it is not a given that there is a tablet or some other electronic device for each child.

Another problem is that many government failings given as reasons not to open schools are of a structural nature, and raise questions about how long schools should be closed.

Issues of poor infrastructure and staff shortages predate the Covid-19 pandemic and won’t be resolved in the near future. So it would sound more than a bit illogical to argue that all children must be deprived of an education until all these problems have been resolved everywhere.

The most important thing we should factor in is the health and safety of children in our schools. So far, research indicates that children of school-going age are less likely to catch the disease or die from it. That’s not to say we should be reckless as the evidence on their capacity to spread it is still mixed. The government needs to be held to account to ensure the safest way possible for students to stay in class. 

But arguing for a blanket ban while we are encouraging opening up the rest of society seems foolhardy. And the legal campaign smells like a political ploy rather than one driven by genuine concern over children’s health and safety.